Līlā; or, It’s Just a Ride
One of the perennial questions of religion is raised by the existence of evil. The world, as is apparent to anyone with eyes to see, is a rough-and-tumble place, a place where huge amounts of extremely nasty things occur. In and of itself, this obvious fact is, while unpleasant, also unremarkable. For a non-believer, the evil in the cosmos just is. There’s no particular reason for it, any more than there is for any other observed phenomenon. The universe is a quirk of random chance, and it is as it is, a mixture of good and bad. Much of the badness, in fact, is a function not of any cosmic principle, but of our perspective as humans. Disease, suffering, and death are very much meaningful–and unpleasant–to us, since they affect us in ways we don’t at all like. For the disease-causing pathogens that live on us, though, we’re a veritable smorgasbord, a means by which they prosper, albeit at our expense. Things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and such are impersonal phenomena that just happen with no motivations at all, either good or bad. They occur merely because of natural processes, and the fact that we are sometimes in their way is our problem, not theirs. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Even for believers of various stripes, not all religions give any particular answer to the “problem of evil”. Buddhism famously begins with the assertion that the cosmos is irremediably screwed up, to wit, the First Noble Truth, which declares that “all existence is suffering”. In short, the world is a cesspit of misery that will never be any better than it is. We may have better or worse experiences in the course of manifold reincarnations, but in the end, it all boils down to suffering, even if it’s deferred for a bit. Thus the goal of Buddhism is to leave the wheel of birth and rebirth–samsara–for good by attaining nirvana. At that point, one is no longer reborn into this universe of misery. Jainism takes a similar viewpoint, in which the ultimate goal is the cessation of rebirth through moksha (liberation) at which point one’s jīva (soul) leaves the phenomenal cosmos for the Siddhashila, a place of perfection in which the now-purified and omniscient jīva dwells eternally in perfect bliss. As with Buddhism, the idea is that evil, suffering, and nastiness are baked into the cake of the universe, so that the idea is to escape the universe.
The various religions of the ancient Mediterranean, China, and other places, as well as the earliest forms of religion in India, viewed the gods as more or less the same as humans. Some humans are good, some are bad, and most of us are quite capable of being either, depending on the circumstances. Thus, the gods are ambivalent. Some are more or less beneficent (e.g. Horus or Athena) and others more or less the opposite (e.g. Set or Ares). Still, even the “nicest” deities were often capable of random and sometimes meaningless cruelty (as all aficionados of Classical mythology well know), and even the “nastiest” deities often had temples and worshipers, if for no other reason than to appease their potential wrath. Even the incipient monotheistic tradition of Israel displayed this ambivalence and ambiguity. You can’t read very far into the Old Testament without noting that God as portrayed does a ton of questionable–if not downright awful–things. He even admits it: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, KJV) In such a framework, then, there is no philosophical problem with evil in the cosmos. The gods/God just do nasty things now and then, for whatever reason; so what do you expect?
Even if the gods/God are/is consistently good and noble, maybe they/He just can’t do anything much about it. If the Divine, however conceived, is not all-powerful, there may be limits to how much good it can arrange in the cosmos. Some interpretations of Zoroastrianism are like this–Ahura Mazda (God), while perfectly good, is not omnipotent in the way that God was conceived of in later Western philosophy and theology. All He can do is play a long game against Angra Mainyu (the Devil) in which good will ultimately triumph over evil (since unlike good, evil lacks foresight). In the meantime, things will be rough and unpleasant at times, and all the followers of Ahura Mazda can do is hold out until the end, realizing that evil is not His fault. In modern times, some suggested theologies also posit a limited God. The most notable is process theology, although some forms of open theology make similar assumptions. In both, the idea is that God is limited but gradually growing, both morally, intellectually, and in ability. Thus, while He does what He can, He is not currently capable of “fixing” the imperfections of the cosmos. Some forms of modern theologies even imply that He is working on fixing His own imperfections. Either way, the point is that the state of the universe is not God’s fault, or at least not fully His fault.
All of the above frameworks have no need to “explain” evil. It just is; or the gods (or God) cause some of it; or the gods or God can’t do much about it. That’s the way it goes–life is tough all over. The only context in which the evil of the world becomes philosophically and theologically problematic is when the following assumptions are all made together, to wit:
- God (or the gods or the Divine) exists, and
- He is all-powerful, and
- He is perfectly good.
For the purposes of the argument from here on out, I’m going to refer to “God”, singular, for point one above. One could have a polytheistic system in which this argument could be made, but “problem of evil” discussions are almost always made in the context of monotheism; and Hinduism, to which (as you might have guessed from the image above) I’ll be coming soon, in this context is to be understood more or less monotheistically. Anyway, the three points above imply that God would not want evil to exist in the world which He created (from 3), and that He has the power to remove or prevent such evil (from 2). This runs up against a fourth point, though:
4. Evil, in fact, does exist.
So, if God exists, and is capable of doing anything, and desires there be no evil in the world, then why the hell (pun intended!) is there evil in the world? This is the classical Problem of Evil, which lies at the root of the branch of theology known as theodicy, from theos, “god” and dikaios, “just” or “righteous”. In short, theodicy attempts, against the observed evidence, to argue for the justice and righteousness of God despite the existence of evil and His presumed ability to remove it. Systematic attempts to make such arguments date back at least to Gottfried Leibniz (who in fact coined the term “theodicy”), in the Western tradition, and much has been written on the matter. I’m not interested in rehashing any of that in this post. Rather, I want to look at a Hindu concept that tangentially addresses the issue, and which I have found to be useful in my own life.
Early Hinduism had a panoply of deities, and, as remarked above, portrayed them in a somewhat ambivalent fashion, as did most other religions of the time. Over the centuries, though, Hinduism developed into a sort of monotheism. The ultimate reality and source of all being was said to be Brahman. Brahman is the origin of all things. It is infinite, ineffable, and beyond all human concepts. In essence, Brahman is identical to the God of classical theism. In Its pure form, Brahman (which is neither masculine, feminine, or neuter), is nirguṇa–“without properties”. However, humans are able to relate to Brahman, for It appears in forms that humans can understand. So conceived, It is called saguṇa, “with properties”. It is also referred to as Īśvara, “Lord”. All the various Hindu gods and goddesses are thus different manifestations or conceptualizations of Brahman in forms that humans can understand and to which they can relate.
The problem of evil is not addressed in Hinduism as directly as it has been in the Western religions, but it has not been totally neglected, either. In the Hindu view, not only the gods but the entire phenomenal world itself is a manifestation or emanation of Brahman, the Divine. The question arises, then, as to why Brahman expresses Itself to begin with, and why so much of that expression is so nasty. After all, if the cosmos is an expression of Brahman, then cancer cells and malaria are as much divine as flowers and butterflies. The answer that is given is līlā.
Lila (from this point I will dispense with the italics and the diacritics) is a Sanskrit term that can be translated as “pastime”, “sport”, or “play”. The idea is that it is meaningless to ask why God (here I switch to Western terminology, but the point remains) created the universe. Since He already is infinite and contains within Himself all potentialities, He has no need to make anything, since nothing can add to what He already has. Instead, God makes the cosmos for lila–for play. Creation is a cosmic game that God plays for His amusement. In some interpretations, by in a sense “becoming” the cosmos, God actualizes the potentialities within Him, and thus is able to experience them in a way that would not otherwise be possible. In short, you or I each have a unique experience different from that of all others; and since each of us is a teeny facet of God, He is able to experience, through us, that which He could not otherwise know except as an abstraction.
In this context, evil is not a random feature of the cosmos or indicative of cruelty within God. Rather, it comes naturally with the limitations of finite existence. Any type of existence short of the Infinite must of necessity be limited; and limitations imply “evil” in at least the sense of privation (lacking). Moreover, as anyone who has studied literature knows, conflict is a necessary component of any interesting story. No one writes a novel or films a movie about a person getting up and having a wonderful day with no conflict or difficulties at all. Likewise, God in creating the cosmos, allows evil “to thicken the plot”, as the Hindu saint Ramakrishna is said to have stated. This is a part of the play, the lila, of God, and though it seems nasty to us, it’s OK in a cosmic sense. God, in manifesting the universe, makes things in it that are unpleasant and cause suffering; but since we, too, are manifestations of God, He suffers in and with us. It is ultimately OK, since all returns to God and is set right again. God tells the story–becomes the story–and introduces evil to thicken the plot; but then the story ends, He closes the book, and everything is all right again.
I have found this perspective most relevant in fighting the tendency, increasing with age, to lose idealism and become jaded. Even with the best of intentions, we so often fail, or even make things worse. The ideals–be they religious, political, familial, or other–which we espouse seem ever more elusive, ever less likely to be realized. To continue to struggle, with victory seemingly farther away than ever, or to just give up and betray one’s beliefs and commitments? Neither seems like a particularly good option.
This is where lila comes in. The analogy I tend to use is a game–football, baseball, basketball, or any other, pick your favorite. While the player is actually in the game, it is the most important thing in the world. Nothing matters but making the home run, scoring the touchdown, preventing the other team from scoring–in short, in the classic phrasing of Vince Lombardi, “winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing”. Win or lose, though, the thing is that the game eventually comes to an end, and the players in the game and the fans watching it go back to daily life. The members of the opposing teams shake hands and go home. The spectator gets over his elation–or depression–and goes home (or shuts off the TV if he’s watching at home). In the end, it’s just a game. True, some people have trouble seeing it that way; but any psychologically healthy person, player or spectator, has to be able to do so. You struggle or root with passion as if nothing were more important than the game, and after it’s over, you return to ordinary life in which things go on as before, and the game was just a game.
I try to take that attitude. Life is important, and I have to try to be the best child to my parents, the best parent to my child, the best husband to my wife, the best worker, colleague, friend, etc. that I can in all the various areas of my life. There are real consequences to my actions (or inaction), and momentous things, up to life itself, may hang in the balance. There is, alas, no guarantee that however I may strive or however well I may fulfill my duties, that things will turn out the way I’d like. Disappointments and failure are as much a part of life as joy and success.
However, in a sense, the biggest failures or successes I may experience are vanishingly insignificant in the vast sweep of the cosmos. The fate of the whole human race is in fact a small matter in the grand picture. That doesn’t mean my life–or the human race–doesn’t matter; but it does put it into perspective. In one sense, it is all lila–the play of the Divine. Life is short, and someday, like all games, it will be over. We will then, perhaps, be able to see the big context and maybe shake hands with those who caused us the most grief in life, and say, “Well played!” Maybe we’ll go to a home more real than this world after putting away our chess pieces and take our rest at last.
Another way one could put it, in the words of the late, great Bill Hicks, would be that we realize it’s “just a ride”.
Part of the series “Religious Miscellany“